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The Best Cyclemotor

by Philippa Wheeler

I remember the circumstances of buying my first cyclemotor very well. It was in 1960, in Bishop Bridge Road, Norwich.  I was in RAF blue and had just paid £3/10/0, fruits of a week's radar watching for the Queen.  My acquisition was a Power Pak with which I was to enjoy an uncertain relationship subsisting of mistrust on my part and profligate unreliability on the other's.  I used the pedals a lot and before long I had to sell the Matchless 500, which was much too fast for owner and which I was convinced would succeed before long in killing me.  Out of necessity grew grudging respect for the Power Pak.  I usually got there, albeit slowly.  I may have reduced the cubic capacity of my mount tenfold but my capacity for furious riding seemed undiminished.  So I pass over the 'race' to North Walsham where Power Pak led Cyclemaster until an error of judgement overtaking a back marker on a bicycle led to guest appearances in Station Sick Quarters and the Police Court.  If cyclemotors could be said to have been the last resort of the impecunious, there were a fair few of us in that position and thus several cyclemotorists were to be found on camp.  The discussions as to which was the 'best' cyclemotor over the NAAFI's melamine tables and lukewarm tea ranged far and wide.  There was a Teagle owner, a veritable school of Cyclemasters, together with my Power Pak and a Mini-Motor or so.  There were even one or two of the Better Sort, owners of the cruelly libelled NSU 'Slowly'.  Talk eventually turned to the exotica.  One of the civilian workers had an immaculate Cucciolo, a vision in polished alloy.  Such glories were unattainable to us.  The discussion was never concluded and, in the way of service people, we dispersed to follow our individual destinies in due course.

Spring 1995.

I landed in Normandy a few days after the fifty first anniversary of D-Day.  I was heartily glad that my generation has been spared jumping out of landing craft into the cruel surf of a hostile shore.  There were enough reminders to satisfy the most avid militarist; every village seemed to have a tank on a plinth, flags and "Welcome to our Liberators".  I saw only meaning in the many headstones in the evening sunshine at Hermanville and wept for the waste of it all.  A little later, at the end of the long straight highway that leads from Caen to Falaise, I stopped the Firefly on the ridge that overlooks the peaceful wide valley of the Dives.  It wasn't always so; this area was the notorious Falaise pocket where the Germans fought ferociously to escape the encircling Allies.  The Firefly took me down this rural by-way through Trun to St Lambert.  Here the engine was disengaged for the short ride to Chambois and then up the heights of Mont Ormel.  The forty miles back to Caen seemed an awfully long way but I had no doubt that the Firefly would get me there following the inside of the white line up the Route Nationale at a steady 30km/h.  To me the Firefly is the best cyclemotor.  Mine was bought new and has been looked after but, given its reliability, accessibility for maintenance or repair and instant disengagement of the drive to leave you with a bicycle with variable gears, it takes some beating.  Add to that a 30mph top speed, the inherent high gearing that gives an easy 25mph cruise and a long range tank.  Had it appeared earlier in the marketplace, Vincent might have made a substantial profit on it.

At Arromanches, the camp site gardener liked the Firefly.  He had an unused, brand new VéloSoleX in his garage but, scanning the Firefly, he rubbed finger and thumb together in the internationally understood offer to purchase.  I fear my refusals in halting French were interpreted as a becoming reluctance.  I liked my Firefly and searched for the words I needed until at last I looked at the Firefly and said emphatically "Je t'aime".  I think that the context was understood even if the sentiment was inappropriate - or so my salmon fishing neighbour from the next tent seemed to think.

I acquired my longed-for Cucciolo in 1966 only for it to sit on garage shelves and in cupboards in a succession of houses until 1990.  Michael Jones, then living in Essex, provided the correct pedal cranks and spindle.  Fitting was not without its problems but, eventually, there came that magic day in the Spring of 1990 when I took the road from Craven Arms to Clun and rejoiced in the crisp unsilenced bark of the Little Pup.  Over the last five years I have done a fair few miles on Cucciolos (or is it Cuccioli?)  Without doubt it is the nearest any bicycle has come to lightweight motor cycle performance.  If, that is, you accept that a chassis intended for human power has the capacity to accept 1.5bhp constantly.  Therefore, it has to be accepted too that the inherent fragility of the marriage will sometimes show.  The harshness of the drive, the loss of pleasant cycling with the motor off, all have to be sacrificed.  But, fit a Sturmey-Archer hub, have a light touch with the throttle and mechanical sympathy, balance your wheels and fit the optional hand change and have fun, Italian style.  In the lowest of the six gears available you can climb almost anything.  In the highest, 35mph on favourable main road conditions is simply a fast tick over with 40mph on downgrades.

Mine has been used for several years for transport during the Manx Grand Prix fortnight.  This coincides with the Vintage Club's Manx Rally, one of the best events in the calendar.  It involves the Closed Road Demonstration from Ballacraine to Ramsey, sometimes known as the 'Half Lap Blind'.  For those who haven't been to the Island, picture this: Veterans and cyclemotors are encouraged to start from the Cronk-y-Voddy cross-roads while the main body is let out from Ballacraine soon after the last of the racers has left on his or her last lap, intent on a Finisher's Medal and more squashed flies on the front number plate.  For those waiting at the Cronk the sight of what appears to be the entire Vintage Club in full cry cresting Creg Willies Hill and Lamb Fell, preceded by a Flying Squad of elderly ex-racers on TT Replicas is a daunting sight.  As soon as they are all past, bound for Ramsey, everything forward and trust in the Lord, you are waved out under the raised barrier to follow decorously in their wake.  After all that thundering hardware you get some very funny looks from spectators as you pass on a bicycle at a brisk 30 per.  Today things are going well.  You have wind Force 5 on the Beaufort Scale behind as you leave Handley's and head for the top of Barregarroo.  At this point, on a 'big' Ducati you would be bracing yourself for the wriggle at the Crossroads and the plunge downhill to the blind bend at the bottom.  This is a more leisurely affair, but all speed is relative and fifty on the accurate speedo at least equates to 110+ on its bigger brother.  For the next few miles the speedo hovers around 35 to 40.  At Sulby I looked behind to discover three travelling marshals in line abreast across the road trying to adjust their 160mph projectiles to my snail's pace.  Superfluous, perhaps, to say that I was the last rider into Ramsey and the tea and wads largely gone.  Fun, yes, but I was keeping a lot of spectators from their tea too.  I rode home over the Mountain.  There was the usual little clutch of spectators who had stayed put to watch their homeward-bound mates make a dog's breakfast of the Gooseneck.  I crawled round without pedalling to a not entirely ironic round of applause.

Versatile, yes; swift, undoubtedly; is the Cucciolo the ideal cyclemotor for me?  No.

Last, and definitely least, the 18cc 'Diesel' Lohmann.  It was Tony Brown of the Vintage Club who offered me his brand new Lohmann and, such is the way of things, I was immediately offered another, also new.  With Tony's Lohmann came some delightful correspondence from a Dutch previous owner who had bought a job lot a quarter of a century ago.  The English was imaginative if not quite the Queen's and recommended inter alia, the warming of the cylinder head for a first start with a 'blowing lamp' or perhaps an 'electric sun'.  For that first start, not only the blowing lamp, but also the Easy-Start, a great deal of pedalling and a rivulet of unburnt fuel from the decompressor.  A partial eclipse of North Gwent under a pall of white paraffin smoke was accompanied by an apparent death rattle from somewhere below.  After that it could only get easier.

It's not difficult to see why the Lohmann wasn't a commercial success in Britain.  Taking into account official suspicion about fuel, uncertain starting, a warm-up period in cold weather and the weird operation of two twist grips in conjunction; it was easier to catch the bus or tram to the shops.  Also the determination of those in fear of the Excise men who tried to run on petrol: you can pedal till your trousers catch fire but it won't start.

However, if you take time to understand your Lohmann, accept that it dies of fright when confronted with steep hills, doesn't really like speeds much above 15mph and will never, ever, cause the tyre to leave a long black line on the road under fierce acceleration, it's rather a delightful little beast.  It is about half the weight of most cyclemotors, can be attached in about five minutes and detached in two, can be easily engaged and disengaged and always starts (not withstanding the above).

At the end of last winter I took myself off to Brittany for a week.  The versatile little motor fitted to a 20" wheeled Raleigh Stowaway folding shopping cycle I keep at the office.  The whole thing folds up to be wrapped in a nylon poncho and can be carried, smelling vaguely of hurricane lamps, free of charge on trains.  I stopped overnight in the Youth Hostel at St Malo.  On Sunday morning the bells of Paramé were ringing as I left for Cancale and the Mont St Michel.  I could see it - a tiny triangle upstanding from the sea - from afar.  The level coast road suited the Lohmann well and the two twist-grips were adjusted until the exhaust settled to a soft, contented, economical buzz.  Finally, I stood in wonder before this incredible monument to piety and marvelled, as millions have done before me, at the scale of it.  Then the Lohmann took me back again in reverse order.  About 80 miles that day and still able to go for a 'cycle ride', engine disengaged, later.  I began to appreciate the Lohmann as never before and guessed I'd never view the office bicycle in quite the same way again either.  Nor have I.

There was more to come: wrapped in its poncho as a large green parcel, I caught the train to Vannes.  How I later met my Lohmann in Dinan and caused alarm and despondency to the French railway system is another story altogether and I'm sure there will be other holidays like that one to come.

However, if it were 1952 and I wanted a cyclemotor for everyday transport, what would I buy?  Definitely not a Ducati or a Lohmann, and the Firefly was yet to arrive on the scene.  Like everybody else, I'd probably buy a Cyclemaster or a Mini-Motor.  As a matter of fact, I've recently bought a Power Pak.  Isn't that where we started?

First published - April 1996

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